A Conversation With LEGO Car Designer Craig Callum
Photos by Florence Walker, Ted Gushue & LEGO
Why do some guys get all the luck? If you ask Craig Callum, it’s not luck at all: it’s hard work and a lifetime of automotive passion and design knowledge that has lead to his position as Design Manager at LEGO. He’s had his hand in the design process behind some of the most iconic LEGO cars ever to be assembled out of Denmark. I was lucky to bump into him at The Goodwood Festival of Speed this year and we had a lovely chat.
Ted Gushue: Craig, start from the top. How does it come to be that you’re able to design a 917 Porsche in Lego?
Craig Callum: The first thing you have to realize is that at LEGO, we wanted to focus on iconic cars. The 917K is just one of those cars that just stands out in history as a car we should be making.
TG: How much clearance do you have to get? Is there like a board-level discussion on every model, or is there like a group-level clearance on everything that you do? The 917K is admittedly a car that has a niche audience, it’s not exactly as well known as the Star Wars Millennium Falcon.
CC: We have an excellent partnership with Porsche, which means that we do a car like the 917K we usually team it up with a car that’s more current and relevant at the same time. That, then, always allows the kids and the dads to find something really cool to share together. The set where we have the 917K also has the 919LMP, this year’s Le Mans car. Juxtaposing those two icons allows us to bridge the gap in terms of potential customers. The kids will like the new one, and the dads are going to love the old one.
TG: Walk me through the design process. Do you start off outside of LEGO? Do you model in clay and then go to LEGO, or how does it work?
CC: We generally work straight in LEGO. The thing is we have drawers and drawers of LEGO behind our desks, so the design team will all just grab some bricks and start roughing things out. It’s a big group of us and it’s quite a fun process, there aren’t many products that don’t have at least a few hands on them. You’d start by making the shape that looks as close to the car as possible. That might mean cutting elements up, gluing elements, but certainly the early models, they’re still all Lego but maybe held together in not particularly great ways. Then we spend a few months working with the partner, so we’ll then show Porsche our idea, get them to share feedback on what they think it should look like. We work very closely with them.
At the same time we also need to introduce the building instruction side of it, so that the model has to be able to be built in LEGO, and it has to be stable once it’s been built. Making it super strong is really important, because it’s not just about building but also playing with it, playing out stories in 3D. These cars might crash and bash and race around your living room, kids as young as 5, 6 years old are bashing them around. They’re going to take a bit of abuse, so the model needs to be secure, very stable in its build.
TG: Of course. Once the car is built, how quickly does it actually go into marketing and then sale?
CC: Normally, the process can be 1-2 years. It’s actually quite a long process, because if you think about how many LEGO bricks there are out there and how many different colors, and how many different combinations, then it can be quite a task just to organize getting all the right bricks in the right box, and getting it on the shelf. Normally, I would say, it’s about a year between us freezing the design and it coming on to the shelf, but it can vary. It depends from product to product.
TG: What’s the most difficult scale to work in? This 917 is 1:32, right?
CC: 1:32, I think, Scalextric size. Yeah. That’s a challenge because you really have to balance how much detail you build and how much detail you use graphics or decorations for. It’s a challenging one, especially as we do want it to have a certain level of realism and authentic details to link it to the real car. If you go a bit smaller than that, it can be more difficult, but you can rely more on graphics and decorations to do that. For it to go bigger than that, you can build the details a lot more, such as the Ferrari F40, GT3RS, and cars like that. It’s not necessarily the scale that can be difficult, but it could be just the car that you choose might be more challenging. The 917K is an iconic car with very bright graphics, so it’s very easy to read that car without it being 100% accurate, whereas other cars that might have more complex shapes and may not have such an obvious graphic breakup would be more difficult.
TG: What’s your favorite car that you’ve worked on?
CC: My personal favorite is the Ford Model A hot rod, which is in one of our sets this year.
TG: Really? Why’s that?
CC: It’s in a set with a Ford F-150 Raptor, with a trailer, and then there’s a hot rod on the back.
TG: Very cool.
CC: The reason being I have a Ford Model A hot rod, and it was a car that as a kid growing up, I had a Matchbox version. It was black and it had flames down the side, and it had the big shiny engine. That’s what really got me into cars and got me into hot rod specifically. Now I finally, in the last couple of years, managed to find myself a hot rod. It’s not got flames on the side, but very similar. I just remember back to being a kid and how much I worshiped this little Matchbox car, and I wanted to be able to create that iconic car again. That’s my favorite one.
Thanks to Craig for taking the time to chat with us, as we’re pretty big LEGO fanboys here at Petrolicious.